Remembering a great musician and my friend Batyrkhan Shukenov26 may 2015, 16:52
Batyrkhan Shukenov’s death on April 28 hit me hard because not only did I love his music like millions of other fans, but he was my friend.
In 2011 I did the first feature story about the superstar singer and sax player in English, for Edge magazine. I asked another singer, my friend Zhenya Kechina, to interpret for me because Batyr was still learning English and my Russian had always been bad.Singer Batyrkhan Shukenov. ©RIA Novosti
At the start of the interview the man whose fans worshipped as Batyr seemed guarded about an encounter with an American journalist, perhaps not knowing what to expect.
But when I told him how much I liked his music – and proved it by mentioning several songs I loved – he opened up, becoming not just warm but enthusiastic and animated.
By the end of the 90-minute interview in his Almaty studio, we had bonded. And we remained friends, keeping in touch when we could.
We didn’t meet that much because I moved from Almaty to Astana to take a new job, and he didn’t come to the capital that often. He spent most of his time in Almaty or Moscow, where he achieved success with the band A-Studio. In fact, it was in his Moscow apartment where he died of a heart attack.
When I was able to see him, it was always invigorating.
Batyr would greet me with that incredible smile and a hug. We would talk in a relaxed manner, with him paying rapt attention to what I was saying. Never once did he look bored or distracted, as if he couldn’t wait to end the conversation and move on to something more important.Batyrkhan Shukenov. Photo courtesy of the official website of the singer.
At the end he would give me another hug, put his hands together in Buddhist-prayer fashion, smile and bow slightly in a sign of respect.
One reason millions of fans – including me -- adored him was that he was a genuinely nice guy.
I mentioned that to him in our 2011 interview, and he told me a story that he said had helped him maintain a sense of perspective when he became famous.
In 1981, when he was 18, the native of Kyzylorda in southwestern Kazakhstan enrolled in the Leningrad Culture Institute, which boasted one of the world’s top music programs and had an internationally renowned faculty.
The professors there quickly recognized his talent.
When Batyr left the institute two years later to complete his studies at the Almaty Conservatory, his musical-instruments professor, Nikolai Dranitcyn, told him: “I know you’re going to be a famous musician, and the most important thing you need to remember is not to become too egotistical.”
“I understood that message later,” Batyr told me. “Pride is the hardest thing a person has to struggle with when he becomes famous.”
A person with talent should never forget that “he has been given a gift,” he said.
Batyr never forgot the message. He went out of his way for others, and would become the first Kazakh to be a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund.Batyrkhan Shukenov: "There are many people who want love, light and peace in this world."
Although music was his life, I was amazed to learn how much he knew about great musicians – not just those in the former Soviet Union and the West but in the Caribbean, Africa, East Asia and many other places.
Although he was mostly a jazz, pop and contemporary-folk guy, he loved all genres. His only stipulation was that it had to be great music.
His eyes shone when I asked him to name some of the musicians who’d inspired him.
“There are so many,” he said. Then he named a dozen or more.
The first time he became enchanted with a singer he was just 5 years old. When he heard the Indian star Lata Mangeshkar singing in a Bollywood movie, it “it drove me crazy,” he said. “My head started spinning around.”
He bought a Louis Armstrong record when he was 10. As he listened he became so enraptured that he felt “as if I were vibrating inside.”
Like many world-class musicians, the Beatles were a major influence on Batyr. He remembered when he was 12 becoming enthralled with their song “Across the Universe.”
At the end of our interview, I told Batyr I wished he would do an album in English. “You have such an incredible voice, and you’re one of the top jazz-saxophone and jazz-clarinet players in the world,” I said. “I think Americans and Europeans would love you.”
He had been thinking about an English album for some time, he replied.
In fact, he had long dreamed of having Canada’s David Foster write the songs and produce the album. Foster is the premier contemporary-music composer of our time. He has written so many smash songs for Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, Madonna, Andrea Bocelli and other stars that he’s known as the Hit Man.
Batyr knew I had some connections in Hollywood from my years as a journalist at the Los Angeles Times.
“Could you contact David Foster and ask him to produce an album for me?” he asked. “Tell him money’s no problem – I have money for such a project.”
I told Batyr I couldn’t guarantee I could even reach a man as sought-after as David Foster, let alone talk him into doing an album with a singer who was fabulous but unknown in the West. But I said I’d try.
“That’s all you can do – try,” Batyr grinned. “I would very much appreciate it.”
I took the David Foster quest seriously. I contacted several Hollywood actors and talent agencies I knew. No luck on finding a Foster contact.
Then the actor Armand Assante came through. Armand, whom I’d become friends with at some of the Astana International Action Film Festivals, gave me the name and email address of David Foster’s manager.
I was psyched up when I wrote the manager the most sparkling email I could muster. I explained that Batyr was a superstar singer in the former Soviet Union, that he wanted to make an album in English so he could attract a whole new fan base in Europe and North America, that he wanted David Foster to be the album’s song writer and music producer because he was the best in the world, and that he had the money to pay for the project.
Then I waited. The manager did not answer my email, nor two others I sent. My hope that I could help my friend evaporated. I was bummed. I felt I’d let Batyr down. Singers Batyrkhan Shukenov and Nikolai Rastorguyev. ©RIA Novosti
I was still brooding about this failure, and trying to figure out how to do an end run around the manager and contact David Foster himself, when Batyr came to Astana in late 2013.
I was eager to see him – not just to renew the friendship but because I had a new idea. I’m a decent poet, and I told Batyr I wanted to write the lyrics for a love song for him and have my daughter Angie, a singer and song writer in Portland, Oregon, set the words to music.
I had chosen Angie as the composer because she’d given up song writing and performing after the tragic death of an infant son, and I hoped a project with Batyr would propel her back into the love of her life: music.
I told Batyr that if he liked the song, he could make it his first recording in English. If he didn’t, he needn’t worry about it.
“I'm waiting for your song,” he emailed me a few weeks after we’d met in Astana. “Give my regards to your daughter.”
But the song never materialized. Angie had yet to heal from the loss of her 11-week-old son. Until then, she told me, she would be unable to pursue music again.
A few weeks ago, I asked Angie if I could send the lyrics I’d written for the song to Batyr’s longtime composer and friend, Kuat Shildebaev, who is as nice a man as Batyr. Maybe Kuat would be interested in setting the lyrics to music, I said. She said go ahead.
Lyrics to Hal Foster’s love song for Batyr
Darling Be Mine
That carefree man I’d come to be
vanished when you smiled at me.
I felt the longing in your soul
for a special man to make you whole.
In that instant -- a revelation to me --
I no longer wanted my heart to be free.
Oh, my Darling, love me, do.
Let me give my all to you.
Let me show you ecstasy.
Let me be your destiny.
I see in your eyes you’ve been hurt before.
I promise, my darling, to help you soar.
I’ve waited so long for you to appear
I’d move a mountain to keep you near.
That carefree man I’d come to be
vanished when you smiled at me.
It took just an instant for me to see
I no longer cared if my heart were free.
So, my Darling, love me, do.
Let me give my all to you.
Open your heart, you will see
I’m your man, your destiny.
I hadn’t sent the lyrics to Kuat when Batyr died last week at the all-too-young age of 52.Batyrkhan Shukenov. © instagram.com/keti_one_official
Angie loved Batyr’s music, too, so we’ve both been grieving about his passing.
But mixed with the grief is the joy we’ve felt from playing his music – songs that always make you happy, whether they’re ballads, Latin-dance-style numbers or tunes that evoke tradition, like the Kazakh-language “Otan Ana.”
For all of you who are grieving like Angie and me about losing Batyr, remember that his music will live on, enriching us forever. It won’t make up for his loss, but it will help.